La Dolce Vita, Beverly Hills, California

I first heard about this hidden gem of a restaurant on the defunct web site latimemachines.com by a man named Jonathan M., who I never had the pleasure of meeting, but I felt a kinship with him through our shared love for time-travel restaurants. Sadly, he closed his website a few years ago and I don’t know what became of him. I was able to print many of the pages from his site before it went down, which grew very extensive in its last years of 2009-2011. He championed La Dolce Vita as one of the Top 10 Time Machine Restaurants in Los Angeles. Perhaps it was even #1 on his list (though I seem to recall that Musso and Frank Grill had that well-deserved spot). Anyway, I finally was able to visit La Dolce Vita recently with friends and now I know what Jonathan was raving about. Even after a minor remodel in 2013 and without long-time maître d’ Ruben Castro, who retired the same year, it was a wonderful dining experience, so now it is one of my favorite overall restaurants in California.

 

photo by The Jab, 2014

photo by The Jab, 2014

 

Near the busy intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards, La Dolce Vita was opened in 1966 by two waiters from Patsy D’Amore’s Villa Capri, Jimmy Ullo and George Smith. The legend goes that Frank Sinatra and actor George Raft helped fund the restaurant. You will hear many restaurants claim that Sinatra was a regular, but at La Dolce Vita it’s a fact. It was his main hangout until his death. He liked to sit at table #2, a small table for two near the bar with a view of the front door and the entire restaurant (table #15 was his regular booth for entertaining, and is now marked with a brass plaque with his name). Other regulars included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gregory Peck, Don Rickles, Anthony Quinn, and every President (today, photos and brass plaques honor its previous celebrity clientele)..

 

La Dolce Vita bar - photo by The Jab, 2014

La Dolce Vita bar – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

In the 1980s, Ruben Castro was hired as a waiter. His local resume was impressive, having worked at Sunset Strip landmarks Frascati’s, Estephanino’s, La Rue, Nicky Blair’s, and The Saloon in Beverly Hills, since emigrating from Mexico in 1966, the same year La Dolce Vita opened. He moved to captain, then maître d‘, until his retirement in 2013.

 

dining room - photo by The Jab, 2014

dining room – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

In 2000 Ullo and Smith sold the restaurant and it started to go somewhat downhill, no longer attracting local diners. The great-great-grandson of Henry Ford, Alessandro Uzielli, an AFI-graduate who works for Ford Motor Company in movie product placement, as well as being a movie producer (Bongwater), purchased La Dolce Vita in 2003 to try to save a fading Hollywood landmark. After a slow start people started to show up again, including Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, and Tony Martin. Today’s regulars include Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lorne Michaels, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, and Penélope Cruz.

 

dining room - photo by The Jab, 2014

dining room – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

In 2013 the restaurant closed for a week for a refurbishment. Not much was changed that I can see from photos taken before the remodel. The original brick walls (which are actually fake), tufted booths, gilt-framed and paned mirrors (which make the place look larger than it is), decorative metal wall dividers, and lamps from the 1960s remain. The only change that is obvious is an acoustic tile ceiling was replaced with a more attractive ceiling (a change for the better). A slight disappointment on my recent visit was the original brass-tacked bar stools (in pic below) have been replaced for some reason with contemporary high-backed bar “chairs” that didn’t look right (strangely, the old ones were still present in the pics on this post-remodel article), though I loved the diamond tufted bar front in gold.

 

photo by la-confidential-magazine.com

bar with old bar stools – photo by la-confidential-magazine.com

 

The restaurant has no windows, which makes for a nice dark and romantic atmosphere, just how Le Continental likes it. Classic songs by Sinatra, Dino, and other legendary vocalists plays at a soft volume.

 

dining room - photo by The Jab, 2014

dining room – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

Also in 2013, the menu was revised, but most of the restaurant’s dishes are Italian classics (such as chicken and veal scaloppini and steak Florentine), and their famous dishes, such as steak Sinatra (a prime filet mignon with red peppers and a chianti demi glace) and veal meatballs with spaghetti, remain on the menu. All of their pastas are made in house. I had a starter of arancini, followed by a Caesar salad, and steak Sinatra. Everything was excellent and the service was top-notch.

 

steak Sinatra - photo by The Jab, 2014

steak Sinatra – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

The next time you’re in the Los Angeles area you owe it to yourself to make a reservation to dine in style at La Dolce Vita. Wear a suit. Dino would have.

 

La Dolce Vita
9785 Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 278-1845
Open Sun-Thu 5:00pm-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 5:00pm-11:00pm

On Le Continental’s 3-Year Anniversary

Champany Inn - photo by The Jab

Champany Inn, Scotland – photo by The Jab

 

I apologize for the lack of posts in the last month or so. In September I switched web hosts, which hopefully will provide better performance. Also, I was on a two-week vacation in Scotland and Ireland. I will be posting soon about some great classic restaurants I visited on my trip, such as the marvelous Champany Inn outside of Edinburgh (in photo above).

Looking back on the last year or two, sadly we’ve lost a lot of great old restaurants. Particularly hard-hitting personally was the closure of Bella Vista, The Bahooka, and Trader Dick’s. However, some closures thankfully were only temporary, such as the Big 4. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the resurrection of Joe’s of Westlake, and worried about the uncertain future of favorites like La Casa Rosa, which is up for sale, and Sam’s Grill in San Francisco, which closed for renovations in July and still hasn’t reopened (apparently it changed ownership).

But this blog’s primary aim isn’t to mourn lost restaurants; it’s to celebrate existing ones that take you back in time while also providing good (oftentimes great) food and service. If the food isn’t good or the service lacking I won’t put the restaurant on this site. The good news is just because a restaurant is old doesn’t mean the food has to be bland or mediocre. In fact, I find that most classic restaurants have survived so long because of great, often unique, dishes and excellent service in a relaxing old-fashioned atmosphere. Recently I finally dined at La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills, which has been on my to-do list for years, since I first read about it in the defunct web site latimemachines.com. Everything about it was outstanding (I will be posting soon about this gem).

Thank you, dear readers, for following Le Continental. We have many more restaurants to visit and I look forward to sharing my finds and adventures in dining with you in the next year.

The Jab

Bakersfield – Basque City

Let’s stick with the American Basque restaurant theme after last week’s post on the Overland Hotel in Gardnerville, NV.

Bakersfield, California, is without a doubt the Basque capital of the west, if measured by the number of Basque bars and restaurants. There are three historic Basque hotels with bars and eateries in the old part of east Bakersfield by the railroad tracks (that was originally the town of Sumner, then Kern City, before becoming part of Bakersfield), plus a few Basque restaurants of more recent vintage in other parts of town.

 

photo by The Jab, 2011

photo by The Jab, 2011

 

photo by The Jab, 2011

photo by The Jab, 2011

The Pyrenees Cafe opened in 1887 as a hotel, saloon, and bakery. The hotel, which reportedly once housed a brothel, is now apartments, the bakery is still open under separate ownership, while the saloon remains pretty much the same, with the original bar and stools. It is the oldest operating bar in Kern County and it’s claimed to be haunted. If you only have time for one Basque meal in Bakersfield don’t miss the Pyrenees bar for a before dinner Picon Punch.

 

photo by The Jab, 2011

photo by The Jab, 2011

 

Noriega’s was opened by Faustino Noriega and Fernando Etcheverry in 1893 as a boardinghouse. It remains a boardinghouse to this day, making it the only remaining original Basque hotel still operating in the U.S.

 

The Noriegas - photo by The Jab, 2011

The Noriegas – photo by The Jab, 2011

 

In 1931, French Basques Juan and Gracianna Elizalde purchased Noriega’s, adding a bar and restaurant in 1940, which have not changed a bit since then (except for a small TV in the bar).

 

The Elizades - photo by The Jab, 2011

The Elizaldes – photo by The Jab, 2011

 

Today Noriega’s is still owned by the same family. It’s run by the Elizaldes granddaughters, Rochelle Ladd and Linda McCoy, who received the James Beard American Classic award for Noriega’s in 2011.

 

Noreiga's bar - photo by WineGoddess6 on TripAdvisor.com

Noreiga’s bar – photo by WineGoddess6 on TripAdvisor.com

 

photo by The Jab, 2011

Noriega’s dining room – photo by The Jab, 2011

 

As in most classic American Basque restaurants the food is served family style on long tables. Noriega’s menu includes breakfast, lunch (single seating at 12pm), and dinner (at 7pm), all very hearty meals, with dinner being the largest. The dinner “set-up” (Basque term for the various non-main courses) is generous, including homemade soup, fresh local salad with vinaigrette dressing, their famous pickled tongue, cottage cheese with mayo, pasta or rice, hand cut french fries (usually served with the main course), vegetable, beans, salsa, bread from the Pyrenees bakery nearby, excellent homemade blue cheese, dessert, and ice cream. When I dined there we also received potato salad. House wine, served in unmarked bottles, is included, as well as coffee, tea, or milk. And all that comes with TWO entrees, which vary by the day. Clearly a bargain. The Noriega is famous for their tender oxtail stew, served on Saturdays.

 

Noriega's set-up - photo by The Jab, 2011

Noriega’s set-up – photo by The Jab, 2011

 

 

Wool Growers  restaurant - photo by David H. on Tripadvisor.com

Wool Growers restaurant – photo by David H. on Tripadvisor.com

 

Wool Growers Restaurant was opened in 1954 by J.B. and Mayie Maitia, French Basques, to fill a need in the community for an eatery during the hours when Noriega’s wasn’t serving. It is still owned by Mayie, along with her daughter, Jenny, and granddaughter, Christiane, and this year Mayie and her family are celebrating Wool Growers’ 60 years in business!

 

Wool Growers bar - photo by The Jab, 2011

Wool Growers bar – photo by The Jab, 2011

 

The restaurant has tables and booths for four and two, so it’s a good choice if you’re dining alone or prefer more privacy than communal dining provides. The dinner menu has several choices of hearty entrees, unlike many Basque restaurants which have a few entrees that change daily, and includes some French dishes like French Onion soup and escargots. At lunchtime they offer burgers and sandwiches in addition to a large selection of hearty meals. Saveur magazine wrote about the restaurant, praising their oxtail stew.

 

Wool Growers dining room - photo by Darryl Musick on wheelstraveler.blogspot.com

Wool Growers dining room – photo by Darryl Musick on wheelstraveler.blogspot.com

 

Although all three restaurants are worth visiting, If I had limited time I would try to eat at Noriega’s and have a Picon Punch in the bars at Pyrenees and Wool Growers. But why not make a weekend of it and eat at all three?

 

Pyrenees Cafe
601 Sumner St, Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 323-0053
Open Mon 10:00am-6:00pm, Tue-Th 10:00am-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 10:00am-12:00am, closed Sunday

 

Noriega’s
525 Sumner St, Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 322-8419
Open for breakfast Tue-Sun 9:00am-11:00am, lunch Tue-Sun 12:00pm (single seating), dinner Tue-Sun 7:00pm (single seating), closed Monday

 

Wool Growers
620 E 19th St, Bakersfield, CA 93305
(661) 327-9584
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:00pm, 6:00pm-9:30pm, closed Sunday

 

CLOSED – Overland Hotel Bar & Restaurant, Gardnerville, Nevada

Recently I heard of the sale and closure of the Overland Hotel on U.S. 395 in Gardnerville, Nevada, one of a number of hotels that were built in the 19th century and early 20th century as boarding houses for migrant Basque sheepherders, who immigrated from the Pyranees during the California gold rush and Nevada silver mining boom. Over time most of the 300+ Basque hotels closed but a few remain as social gathering places for local Basques (and tourists) to drink a Picon Punch (aka Picon) and dine on hearty food, family-style. Le Continental previously visited Reno’s Santa Fe Hotel and Carson City’s Thurman’s Ranch House, which closed in 2013.

 

photo by The Jab, 2012

photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The only history I could find out about the Overland Hotel is that it opened in 1902. Here is a photo, probably from the 1940s.

 

photo courtesy of Picon Drinkers of the American West facebook page

photo courtesy of Picon Drinkers of the American West facebook page

 

I often drive highway 395 in the autumn to see fall colors along the spectacular route through the eastern Sierra. (Yes, I’m a leaf peeper!). The Overland Hotel was a welcome stop for a refreshing Picon, though I never passed through when I was hungry so, sadly, I have not eaten there.

 

photo by The Jab, 2012

Overland Hotel bar – photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The owner, Elvira Cenoz, retired after running the restaurant and bar for almost 50 years. I’ll proudly keep my souvenir napkin with her name on it.

 

Picon (or Picon Punch) - photo by The Jab, 2012

Picon (or Picon Punch) – photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The Overland Hotel is now closed as the Park family, the new owners, have not yet revealed their plans for the hotel (though they have stated on facebook that it will only be closed for a few months). I’m hoping the historic hotel, bar, and restaurant will be preserved as much as possible. The Park family also recently bought the Horizon Hotel in Lake Tahoe (which opened as Del Webb’s Sahara Tahoe in 1965 but was the Horizon since 1990) and will be converting it into a Hard Rock Hotel.

 

J T Basque Restaurant - photo by Jaspergo on Flickr.com

J T Basque Restaurant – photo by Jaspergo on Flickr.com

 

Meanwhile, in Gardnerville you can get your picons and meals at J T Basque Bar & Dining Room, which was opened in 1955 by the Jaunsaras and Trounday families (hence the name), and has been run by the Lekumberry family since 1960. The Victorian building it’s in was moved to Gardnerville in 1896 and it housed the restaurant and bar for the adjacent Gardnerville Hotel until 1928, when the hotel burned down (while this building survived). This fall I’m going to try to return to Gardnerville to dine at JT’s and afterwards I’ll return here with a full report.

 

 

Klas, Cicero, Illinois

In the Chicago suburb of Cicero, which lies between Oak Park (of Frank Lloyd Wright fame) and Midway airport, is the oldest operating Czechoslovakian restaurant in the U. S. The town became a Czech neighborhood in the 1920s as many Czechs took jobs in the Western Electric plant, but after the plant closed in the 1980s many Czech families moved away and the city is mostly Hispanic now.

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

photo by The Jab, 2010

 

Klas was opened in 1922 by Adolph Klas, from Pilsen in Bohemia, on what is now Cermak Rd. (named after Anton Cermak, Chicago’s first Czech mayor). The street was once called the Bohemian Wall Street because of all the Czech business along the thoroughfare.

 

early postcard - photo by Robert Powers on Flickr

early postcard – image by Robert Powers on Flickr

 

In the early days the restaurant was much smaller (as seen in above postcard). The wonderful rustic bar on the right, apparently an original 14th century tap room, which was reconstructed at Klas, is filled with carved wood monks, painted murals, and taxidermy. It is miraculously unchanged since it opened.

 

old bar postcard - image by John Chuckman

old bar postcard – image by John Chuckman

 

bar photo by The Jab, 2010

bar photo by The Jab, 2010

 

The other remaining part of the original restaurant is the room to the left of the bar, which served as the main dining room in the early days, which I believe is now the lobby (but I can’t recall exactly).

 

original dining room postcard

original dining room postcard – image by Robert Powers on Flickr

 

The restaurant expanded into its current configuration of the bar, main dining room, garden area, and banquet rooms, as seen in this linen postcard, most likely from the late 1930s or 1940s,…

 

postcard image by Mark Susina on Flickr

postcard image by Mark Susina on Flickr

 

…and this postcard, from the 1950s, which shows how it looked on the outside. It hasn’t changed very much since then.

 

1950s postcard - image by Robert Powers on Flickr

1950s postcard – image by Robert Powers on Flickr

 

The buildings, inside and out, have loads of fascinating detail so make sure you allow plenty of time to linger before and after your meal. Notice the Statue of Liberty replica on the building’s façade in this photo (curiously the date on the building is 1923, while the restaurant claims to have opened in 1922).

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

photo by The Jab, 2010

 

In 1962 Adolph Klas passed away. The restaurant was owned by various people until Frank Saballus, a former construction worker, bought it with his sister in 2003 to preserve this last bit of Czech-American culture in Cicero. Le Continental heartily thanks him for preserving such a wonderful restaurant!

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

Good advice before you enter the restaurant! – photo by The Jab, 2010

 

On my visit in 2010 I dined in the main dining room, which is a huge, bright (in the daytime) room with lovely arched windows with bold striped canopies (Le Continental approves of stripes) overlooking the garden, and with framed art and taxidermy (also Le Continental approved) on the walls.

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

photo by The Jab, 2010

 

Klas’ menu is Bohemian. I did not know what that was when I went so I ordered a breaded pork tenderloin (schnitzel) dinner, which came with soup or salad, two “compliments” (I chose bread dumplings and sauerkraut), dessert, and coffee. As you can probably tell in the photo below (before I dumped gravy on everything) the food is homemade, including the bread. Other specialties include wiener schnitzel a la Holstein (topped with two fried eggs, anchovies, and capers), svichkova (pickled beef in sour cream gravy), koprova (boiled beef in dill gravy), roast duck, and smoked sausage. Dessert specialties include kolacky, fruit dumplings, and apple strudel. They offer some Czech beer including Pilsner Urquell, Radegast and Staropramen.

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

photo by The Jab, 2010

 

Make sure you tour the restaurant and ask to see the banquet rooms upstairs!

 

the Dr. Zhivago Room - photo by The Jab, 2010

the Dr. Zhivago Room – photo by The Jab, 2010

 

mural in the Dr. Zhivago Room - photo by The Jab, 2010

mural in the Dr. Zhivago Room – photo by The Jab, 2010

 

banquet room - photo by The Jab, 2010

banquet room with original furniture! – photo by The Jab, 2010

 

amazing chandelier! - photo by The Jab, 2010

amazing chandelier! – photo by The Jab, 2010

 

Klas is indeed the House of Happiness! Their motto (over the door) is “Eat, Drink, and Be Happy”!

WARNING: the areas surrounding Cicero may be somewhat sketchy so it is best to call and ask before venturing out for the best route to take.

 

photo by The Jab, 2010

photo by The Jab, 2010

 

Klas Restaurant
5734 W Cermak Rd, Cicero, IL 60804
708-652-0795
Dining room open Fri-Sun 11:30am-9:00pm, bar hours Wed 6:00pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 11:30am-midnight or later, Sun 11:30am-10:00pm, closed Mon, Tue, Thu